Reader Story: How Downsizing Our House Improved our Quality of Life

I am excited to share with you this story from my friend, Ghi, who I met in Arlington when we formed an Italian playgroup (she is also married to an Italian).

Ghi moved to California the same summer we moved to Manhattan. Even though we both went through major downsizing experiences, Ghi’s experience was so powerful it changed the course of her life. Thank you, Ghi, for sharing your story:

When we started planning for a second child, my husband and I decided we needed to find a bigger house. At the time we lived in a picturesque lakeside community in Northern Virginia where we had a 1,300 square foot townhouse on the water. After a year of searching in the frenzied housing market, we found something much larger –- a 3,500 square foot house on a half acre of land. Built in 1949, the house needed lots of work, including refurbishing a pool in the back yard that hadn’t been used in ten years.

So began an unexpected dark period of our lives. Not every moment of our time in that house was miserable; we certainly enjoyed the yard and the pool when the mosquitoes weren’t swarming, we had lovely neighbors, and the space allowed us to have large parties and family gatherings.

A surprise event breaks our traditional path

But it felt like every spare minute of our free time was taken up by taking care of the house — cleaning, mowing, painting, renovating, maintaining the pool. While some people enjoy this kind of lifestyle, we did not. It wasn’t until my husband received an unexpected job offer in California did we realize we could live differently. We packed up the house, rented it out to another family, and moved across the country into a 1,100 square-foot two-bedroom garden apartment.

Just before the move, I ended up either giving away or selling a lot of our furniture that I had only bought to fill in the empty rooms of our big old house. I wasn’t attached to any of it and most of it was inexpensive.

Even so, when we arrived at our California apartment, we realized quickly we would need to streamline even more. Even though some furniture we loved ended up in storage because we just didn’t have room, paring down meant we were surrounded by our favorite and most treasured things.

How a new start became a precious gift

This single (and initially quite scary) event — starting over in a new place — was the best thing to happen to us since having kids. Though we moved across the country and away from all the family support we had in our hometown, we were incredibly happy.

The first thing we noticed about our new lifestyle was the amount of time we were not taking care of our home. We didn’t have a private yard, but the kids were free to play outside in the courtyard, and there were paths and sidewalks for them to ride their scooters on. There was also a community pool, but there was no grass to mow, no beds to mulch, no pool to maintain.

Less time driving, more time being together

More family time was probably our most favorite outcome of downsizing. As a result of not renting something bigger, we could afford live much closer to where my husband worked. Since neither of us had ties to the area, it seemed to make sense to live near the thing that took us there.

My husband spent just five minutes commuting, which meant he would oftentimes delight the kids by coming home for lunch. He was also home by 5:30 most nights. Less time commuting to a big house meant more time for us to stroll down to the beach park, or take a walk through the neighborhood with the kids. Some days I never used the car, as we lived within walking distance to the school and a shopping center.

Family experiences replace taking care of Stuff

Having a smaller place also allowed us to have great family adventures on the weekends. I will selfishly admit that it was wonderful, for a bit of time, not having to feel obligated to go to all of the family and friend events that seemed to happen every weekend in our hometown.

Instead of spending all weekend working on the house and yard, we would pick a place on the map and take off. Sometimes our adventures would be just day trips, other times we’d spend the weekend, but we would go exploring –- just the four of us –- and this time spent together was incredibly special.

Less time cleaning and organizing

In our new smaller space we were also spending much less time cleaning. In the larger house we would pay someone to help us keep it clean twice a month, but that still left us (I should say ‘left me’) cleaning the house the odd weeks, which took a full exhausting day.

The more space we have, the more stuff we have to keep organized, and the more surfaces there are to clean. In our two-bedroom apartment, we kept our personal possessions to a minimum, and I could knock it out in two hours.

And we were saving money by not having to pay someone to clean. I even started having our five-year-old help us out with some of the chores – simple things like taking out the trash or starting a load of laundry. He enjoyed the responsibility and it meant more time at the beach or park if he helped out.

In our big old house we had a lot of extra stuff. Stuff we kept because we had the space to keep it — including a third car. Needless to say we had to spend money to obtain and maintain that stuff. We didn’t necessarily have any kind of attachment to the extra furniture and toys. It was just taking up space, and in my mind now, creating more work for us.

A temporary experience becomes a long-term lifestyle

California was short-lived. After a year, the funding for the government project my husband was working on was cut off. We decided to head back home, but not without our new-found lifestyle.

We temporarily moved into a similar space – a two-bedroom apartment close to the city in a great school district, with a ten-minute commute for my husband. A year later and after selling our large home we had rented out, we had funds to buy a more permanent place in the same neighborhood.

We traded the 3,500 square foot suburban house on a large lot for a 2,000 square foot urban townhouse-condo across the street from a lovely park. Granted we did double the size of our California apartment, but other than cleaning time, we’ve been able to keep making significant deposits to our time-savings account.

A smaller place means bigger money

Having a smaller lower-maintenance home has also allowed me to return to work. Taking care of the large old house felt like a full-time job between the maintenance and managing renovations.

Living in a newer townhouse-condo, I had much more free time. So when my daughter started full-day kindergarten, I found myself a part-time job that would allow me to be home when my kids are home.

These earnings are going to our kids’ college accounts, paying our mortgage down faster, and taking longer and more adventurous vacations. (OK, so I’ve been having a little more fun shopping for work clothes too, but what do you expect after nine years of wearing only what I could find at budget stores?)

What we miss about a bigger home

All in all, we love our new lifestyle. Yes, I have an itch for gardening, but I’ve been able to satisfy that love by heading up our community’s landscaping committee and learning to container-garden on our patio.

Family will still come to visit us despite our smaller space, and they usually enjoy our urban lifestyle. We walk up the street to grab a bite to eat, shop, hit the farmers market, or cross street to the large park to watch the kids play outside.

Some family members still are not 100 percent convinced we shouldn’t be in that big house in the suburbs, but my husband and I usually aren’t the types to let opinions like that bother us. We just try to communicate to them all the positive things that have come out of downsizing and living closer to the city.

More time and money for what matters

We remember being so happy in that first little townhouse on the lake. My then-young son and I had lot of time for playdates, library visits, outdoor time, and mommy-coffees because it was small and easy to maintain. We now feel a bit foolish to have allowed ourselves to think that we needed something bigger, and how we could have paid the mortgage off by now! But we are thankful that life’s journey has brought us back to a good place, and we are enjoying the upswing in time and lifestyle that downsizing has afforded us.

GhiPic1-150x150Ghi Crisafulli was born in Washington, D.C. and has lived in the area most of her life. In her free time she enjoys gardening, listening to music, and hanging out with her family.

Lead photo: Susan Simon. All others by Ghi Crisafulli.

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22 comments

  • Elle April 16, 2014, 6:08 pm

    Thank you for your story, Ghi! I needed to hear a positive spin on downsizing. We just moved from a 4,000 sq ft house with a pool in the suburbs to an 1,100 sq ft apartment in the city with a view! (and two dogs) The process was difficult…but now I’m beginning to realize that so much “stuff” was unnecessary! Hopefully we can do some weekend exploring as you and your family did!

    Reply
  • Britney September 6, 2013, 8:49 pm

    We are currently in a 2000 sq ft house and have 3 kids! We are about to move into a 1050 sq ft 2 bedroom apartment! We are renting out our house and all of us are excited! We will be closer to my husbands wk and new schools! The kids are happy about the pool & splash pad the apartments have. We have downsized once before and the kids said they were happier there! They remember all the family time we had and movie nights. You think the kids would remember all the bad but nope! We are excited to get to have our time again and not spending all our weekends on yard work and fixing up house stuff! Thanks again for your post! It really got me excited about moving in the next couple months! Now time to have a huge garage sale!!!

    Reply
  • Lindsay June 30, 2013, 10:09 am

    Im totally with you on downsizing!
    My family of 5 lived in what my kids called the “big house”. We rented out our cute 3 bedroom townhome that was in the same neighborhood. After listening to Dave Ramsey on day, it dawned on me that if we sold our “big house” and moved into our townhome, we could PAY OFF the townhome completely and have 50K in the bank. Um, no brainer right?! Our friends thought we were crazy! Well, we did it and I can honestly tell you ALL 5 of us are happier here! We go on more trips, we save. We use the community pool and are living a simpler life. Its funny, how mant years did I convince myself that my kids NEEDED a yard, at the expense of family time, stress, and daddy working her butt off…
    Thanks for you post. I loved it!

    Reply
    • Amy June 30, 2013, 3:26 pm

      Hi Lindsay,

      It is so great to hear your happy story! I love that, in your new situation, you spend more time with people, doing things you love, and saving for the future.

      Thank you for sharing your inspiring story,
      Amy

      Reply
  • George June 7, 2013, 11:22 am

    Hi! I came across this post as I was doing a search for living in small places with a family. We are about to relocate to Dallas, TX for work and are more than likely downsizing as well. I noticed you have two children, a boy and a girl…so do we. And, I was wondering how it has been with the sharing a room? My wife has been concerned about that, which I understand, but I think it’s doable. Thoughts on that part of your experience? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Ghi July 1, 2013, 6:42 pm

      Hi! Our children have shared a room since birth – even in the huge house we had. I think sharing a room brings them comfort and they build a closer relationship this way too. They learn to share a space and be respectful of one another (i.e. the early riser will quietly come downstairs to play as the other sleeps). We do plan on giving them separate rooms next year when my son has to be up at 6am for middle school. It’s worked out for us just fine! Good luck!

      Reply
  • Ghi Crisafulli August 28, 2012, 6:51 pm

    Glad you guys liked the article! It was fun to share…

    Reply
  • Jules August 10, 2012, 4:24 am

    A lovely story, thank you for sharing it with us all

    Jules

    Reply
  • Rachel K August 6, 2012, 9:08 pm

    This was a very, very timely post for me. My husband and I are currently renting a 900-square-foot apartment in the DC area and are househunting in preparation for our second child. It’s been frustrating–DC hasn’t gotten the memo that it’s a buyer’s market right now–but this reminds me of all the good things about renting a little place instead of buying a bigger one. (We’d still like a little bigger, mind, but this reminds me that there’s a silver lining. :) ) Thanks!

    Reply
  • Josie August 2, 2012, 8:23 pm

    This article really hits home with me, in a good way. I currently live in a townhouse in DC (with husband and 2 small children.) For awhile we thought we wanted to move to VA or MD for a bigger house, bigger yard, etc. Long story short we are still in our current house and have totally decided that having no yard= no time or money spent on yard maintenance and we are blocks away from several parks. Smaller house= smaller utility bills, less time cleaning, less stuff in general, more quality family time on the weekends and we are forced to not buy “Stuff” just b/c we think we want/ need it. I used to buy plates at Crate & Barrel b/c they were cute. No more buying anything for the house unless it is a need or disposable. SO happy about the way things worked out.

    Reply
    • Amy August 2, 2012, 9:09 pm

      Hi Josie,

      I’m so enheartened to that you made the decision to stay in your townhouse. You are so right about all the benefits of smaller places. I remember with fondness our times living in condos or apartments. And I’m SO with you on not buying stuff because it’s cute. It gets overwhelming and wasteful and then it’s not fun anymore.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Angela August 2, 2012, 7:25 pm

    Hi,
    I really like your stories! THis one so resonated with me and made me think of several friends who are currently caught up in the unhappy moment of having to keep up a big house-ughh!
    I love, love, love receiving your messages. Happy that I’m on your distro list!

    Reply
    • Amy August 2, 2012, 7:45 pm

      Hi Angela,

      I’m so glad this story was meaningful to you. Americans do take on quite a bit by making their “dream” a single-family house with a yard. There are surely beautiful things about it, but there are definite downsides.

      Thank you so much for your sweet note,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Marlette August 2, 2012, 9:45 am

    I LOVED this story. THANK YOU!
    Marlette in Raleigh, NC

    Reply
    • Amy August 2, 2012, 7:44 pm

      Hi Marlette,

      So glad — thank you for saying so!

      Amy

      Reply
  • Daisy August 1, 2012, 7:40 pm

    We are currently doing some major renovations on our new house and it is taking up all of our time! I can see that there would be big advantages in low maintenance living. I’m hoping that once we are finished we will have that.

    Our new house is quite small (somewhere between 1000 and 1500 square feet), but we are making some changes to make the space easier to use. Many of our friends are also in the process of moving, building or renovating and they all have much larger spaces. We are quite an oddity, especially since 2 of our soon to be 3 children will have to share a bedroom!

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 8:58 pm

      Hi Daisy,

      I believe it — renovating is all consuming! Buying a smaller house does in fact sound unusual for a family of 5. Congratulations on your upcoming baby — what an exciting time!

      Take care of yourself and that baby,
      Amy

      Reply
  • Jen @ Jen Spends August 1, 2012, 1:45 pm

    I’m about to do the opposite–moving from the 924 s.f. house we have been in for 6 years to a 2100 s.f. house. It’s not so much the square footage that matters to me, but the functionality. Our current home just doesn’t serve our lifestyle well anymore. That said, the points in this article are all very valid, and I want to try to maintain a small house mentality in my larger home–I won’t be going on shopping sprees to fill it up with stuff. I’m hoping I’m not being naive in believing that the bigger house will be easier to clean because I will finally have a specific place for everything I need. We shall see!

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 8:53 pm

      Hi Jen,

      I love that you have already made a pact with yourself to not worry about filling your new house with stuff. I’m so happy for you that the deal is going through. I’m sure you will be able to maintain the simple living of a small house, knowing you!

      Amy

      Reply
  • Tragic Sandwich August 1, 2012, 11:42 am

    Sometimes I think about having a bigger house, but the truth is that the one we have (3 bedrooms and 1-1/2 baths in just over 1100 sq. ft.–but it feels bigger) has plenty of room. We just need to get rid of clutter, not find more space for it.

    I mean, ideally I’d like a master bath. But I wouldn’t move for that; there are too many other things about our house and neighborhood that I love!
    Tragic Sandwich´s last post ..Here Be Spoilers

    Reply
    • Amy August 1, 2012, 8:52 pm

      Hey T.S., I agree that a lot of space can be found just by getting rid of clutter. And I love that you are so into your neighborhood and your house that you’re willing to make some tradeoffs.

      Take care,
      Amy

      Reply

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